After exploring and gathering background information on a subject area, it is important to focus in a specific topic to research.

Each "Topic" Has Two or More "Concepts"

A topic is a relatively narrow area of interest that could be thoroughly researched and written about in the time and length of the given assignment. Research topics commonly include at least two aspects or "concepts". If you started with the subject "illegal immigration", for example, after some preliminary research or background reading, you might find that many people writing about the subject are concerned with the impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy. The economy could be the second concept for your research topic. The two (or more) concepts in a research topic can often be phrased in relationship to each other, such as "The effect of _________ on _________", "The role of _________ in _________" or "The use of _________ in _________". Following our focussing process from the subject "illegal immigration", a possible research topic could be: "The effect of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy."

It can often be helpful to phrase a topic as a research question. For example, you could make this topic into the following research question: "What is the effect of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy?"

Not Too Broad, Not Too Specific

When you focus in on a research topic from a broad subject area, it's important to select a topic which is:

1) interesting to you, and

2) not too broad and not too specific.

If you select a topic that is too general, you will be overwhelmed with too much information to choose from and it will be difficult to focus your search. If there are whole books written about your topic, it is too broad for a research paper.

If you choose a topic that is too specific, it will be difficult to find enough information to support your ideas and there may not be enough sources to allow you to develop a balanced perspective on a topic. If your research question can be fully answered in a few paragraphs, your topic is too limited. Narrowing in on a precise topic often continues well into the research process. As you gather more information, you will come up with more ideas to focus your research.

Paying attention to the wording of your research question can sometimes help you avoid being too specific. Research questions beginning with "How..." or "Why..." are usually broader and typically lead to more substantial research projects than questions beginning with "Who...", "Where..." or "When...", which can often be too limited for most research assignments. Questions beginning with "What..." tend to vary in breadth, depending on the wording of the rest of the question. For example, our question, "What is the effect of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy?" is a relatively broad question, while "What percentage of total U.S. employees are illegal immigrants?" is a much more specific question and would not be broad enough for most research assignments.

Research questions that have no simple answers usually lead to more productive research papers. Topics that are controversial and for which there are various different points of view give you more possibilities for developing your own ideas and analysis from your research.

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last revised: 3-13-01 by Eric Brenner, Skyline College, San Bruno, CA

These materials may be used for educational purposes if you inform and credit the author and cite the source as: LSCI 106 Online Research. All commercial rights are reserved. To contact the author, send comments or suggestions to: Eric Brenner at